Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote about this topic, after being inspired by a book called Gardening for a Lifetime: how to garden wiser as you grow older by Sydney Edison (2010), when it gradually began to dawn on me that I could no longer class myself as a 'young gardener'. I took up gardening at the age of 24, so for a long time I was by far the youngest in any gathering of gardeners. When I joined the local garden club, the rest of the members seemed incredibly ancient (probably in their 50s!) and I was something of a novelty. I had boundless energy and set about creating a very high-maintenance garden based comprised largely of herbaceous and shrubby perennials, and later went on to make a similar garden (my current one) on a larger site. Whilst my peers were clubbing, I was digging.
However, around the time of writing the blog, I had been chatting to two actually young gardeners, and I realised they probably saw me as I saw those Methuselahs from my first garden club. Along with this realisation came the insight that eventually I would going to have to make changes to my garden and my gardening style to reduce the amount of effort it all entails. These gloomy thoughts were precipitated by hearing that several of our friends had recently downsized from suburban blocks into villas with courtyards, or, in some cases, apartments.
For quite a while, I couldn't bring myself to open the book for fear of being told that I would ultimately have to be content with a few African violets on a windowsill. But I eventually started to read and was quite inspired by the book. Sydney Eddison was in her 80s when she wrote it, and still living in the Connecticut garden of some acres she had begun nearly 50 years before. She created wonderful perennial borders with amazing colour schemes, which became quite famous. She wanted to remain in her home as long as possible and in the book gave a series of hints of how gardeners could simplify their gardens and reduce the amount of work, without losing the enjoyment of gardening. Whilst I at the time, I felt I had a good few active years ahead of me yet, I definitely didn't have the stamina and energy I once had and a recent injury had shown me how quickly things can change, so I became eager to absorb the ideas that Sydney Eddison shares in her book. Little did I know at the time that within two years of reading the book, I would be completely crippled by an arthritic hip, so the tips proved vital to me!
A key point Sydney Eddison made is that many perennials entail hard work, requiring staking, fertilising, watering, regular division, cutting back and possibly deadheading. Apparently, it used to take her two hours a day just to deadhead her daylily collection! She suggested a critical examination of one's perennials to get rid of any that require too much work. Although her focus was mainly on herbaceous perennials, there were also a number of shrubby perennials that I grew at that time that needed to be cut back severely at the end of every winter. Whilst I used to savour this task in my younger days, I had often begun to think of it with dread, as I tried to fit in all this cutting back into all the other activities in my life.
The huge pile of prunings then need to be put through the mulching machine, a task not exactly relished by the person responsible for that, who was also not getting any younger. My passion for Salvia specimens was the main reason I had so many of these shrubby perennials, so I definitely decided not to add too many more of the really big ones (which require cutting back several times a year) to my garden and in any case, there wasn't any room for them! I did stick to this vow and in fact removed most of the huge, high-maintenance Salvia from my garden, and am now much more interested in the small, compact cultivars these days - of which there seem to be many more available ten years on.
Sydney Eddison suggested that shrubs can be used to replace some perennials. In my younger days, I used to think shrubs were horribly boring compared to the brilliant and flamboyant flowers of perennials, but they definitely started to appeal to me more and more after I read the book. Shrubs on the whole keep their shape year round, offering strong structural form and often have pretty blooms, and they require very little attention once established. They can also give a more serene effect in the garden, without the busyness of a massed perennial border. There are other plants, too, that can be planted and just left to their own devices with little required from the gardener. For example, I never thought I would gaze upon a clump of bromeliads with deep joy, but now I do just that, so glad that I don't have to worry about that area, which looks good all year round. I know a number of gardeners who have used this method to lower maintenance in parts of their gardens. In general, I find more satisfaction in seeing a decent mass of one plant rather than ten different plants crammed into the same spot, all requiring different levels and/or types of care! I also find I am repeating the same plant in different parts of my garden these days, which seems to give a more cohesive look.
The use of mulch and groundcovers to suppress weeds; making lists so that gardening tasks are prioritised and so you can quickly choose a job to do when you have a chance to do some gardening (and to aid one's failing memory!); employing help for heavier gardening work; and learning to accept imperfection (especially with lawns!) are some of the other points made in the book, and I have embraced all of these ideas over the past ten years. Mulching properly has become an important part of my approach to gardening, and I use our rough, homemade compost for this job, after having having a proper three-bay compost system built for my birthday a few years ago. Conscientious mulching really makes a big difference in reducing weeds, maintaining moisture, as well as keeping the soil temperatures lower - along with adding vital organic matter to the garden on an ongoing basis. Accepting help in the garden is one of the hardest things to do, but once you do, it is incredibly liberating, so I urge anyone struggling with their garden to employ someone for the hardest jobs and also to take up any offers of assistance, because other gardeners actually love to do this for their friends.
Of course, there are definitely circumstances when poor health or age-related disability simply make gardening on any reasonably large scale an impossible, soul-destroying burden, and in these cases it just makes sense to downsize. Sydney Eddison devoted several chapters of her book to case studies of her friends who had done this and how they have been able to keep up their interest in gardening on a much smaller scale, using pots and raised beds, for example. I hate to think of ever having to give up gardening completely. I am sure that being involved with gardening into old age has physical, emotional and social benefits, just as it does at any other age: keeping us connected to the cyclical rhythms and the beauty of the natural world. Sydney Eddison also talked about her enjoyment as she got older of becoming a sort of mentor to younger, fitter gardeners. I recall how the older people in my first garden club took me under their wing, giving me cuttings and tips, and generously sharing their knowledge - and we ageing gardeners have the chance to do the same to others.
This blog was first posted 9 October 2011; updated 17 October 2021.
There will be a stall selling lots of interesting plants suitable for Sydney gardens running from Saturday 23 October to Saturday 6 November 2021, to be held in front of 7 Boyd Avenue, West Pennant Hills. The stall is organised by Virginia Coote and will include many plants propagated from her garden. Proceeds will be donated to the Save the Children Fund and Mission Australia. There will be an honesty box for payment so make sure you have suitable notes and coins, as change won't be available. Also, please bring your own boxes or bags to carry your plants.
The allure of the orchid cactus
24 Oct 21
This intriguing epiphytic plant is in bloom now.
Ageing and gardening
17 Oct 21
As one gets older, there is the need to rethink aspects of one's garden.
Painting with coleus
10 Oct 21
Coleus can make wonderful pictures in the garden.
03 Oct 21
Tough and undemanding plants from my parents' garden are favourites in my own.
The value of green spaces
26 Sep 21
Earlier this year, I visited Callan Park in Sydney's inner west.